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Another Shot at Understanding: Learning About Islam

One of the good Doctor’s opening salvos was this. Imagine if what others knew about Christianity began and ended with Hitler. He was nominally a Christian. His troops stormed into the Sudetenland with the words “God is with us” engraved on their belts…For this, Dr. Lawson argued, is precisely the skewed perspective of Islam that too many of us have swallowed with our supper-hour newscasts. Bombings = Islam. Islam = opposition to progress. Islam = two thirds of the Axis of Evil. (Oh, the curse of speechmaking!)

Lawson is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto, and our little family had run away on this weekend of thought and refreshment largely to hear him speak. He wanted us to think about revolution, one of the main casualties of which, no matter how praiseworthy are its aims and programs, is history. And among the histories we may think we know (but emphatically don’t) is that of Islam.

Dr. Lawson argues, for example, that “Europe was precisely defined  (geographically and otherwise) by its defensive and offensive resistance to Islam”. In large measure, this is why Europe was so dark in the Dark Ages, whereas northern Africa and western Asia shone with Muslim civilization. Islam predominated in Spain, for example, for 800 years, more than three times the duration of the United States of America. In addition to co-existing amicably with Jewish and Christian communities, Islamic cities like Cordoba (and, not incidentally, Baghdad) were centres of arts and architecture, medicine, science and commerce.

The European Renaissance can be traced to its eventual increased openness to the scholarly, artistic and other resources of the Islamic culture that surrounded it. Avicenna – the Latinized name of the Persian Ibn-Sina, a gifted astronomer, physician, poet, mathematician and philosopher – was an 11th-century Muslim that Lawson terms “one of the four or five greatest geniuses of world civilization”. We know Leonardo, but we are ignorant of those that preceded and made him possible.

Our tour guide of Islamic culture and contribution debunked the standard criticisms of Muslims: their treatment of women and of apostates, their so-called “conversion by the sword”, their relative cultural decline in recent centuries, the much-muttered but sorely misunderstood concept of jihád. Lawson also emphasized the deep-rooted garrison mentality of the European heritage, in which a more powerful and more advanced Islamic civilization was feared and demonized as the “barbarians at the gates”. Those bogeyman whispers can still be heard in our contemporary public discourse.

Lawson, while not himself a Muslim, argued passionately in defence of Islam. One of the silver linings of the West’s forced encounter with Islam is that understanding is slowly growing. Muslim and other educated voices are raising the image of the Faith of Muhammad around the world. Dr. Lawson pointed out a remarkable irony: members of the Bahá’í community, branded as heretics and victims of persecution in some Muslim countries, are called upon to understand and defend all that is noble and good in Islam.

There was much more, brilliant and fascinating. (And oddly reassuring. This stuff CAN be understood. Okay!) I’ll offer more snippets another day.

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